Families Often Use Complementary Medicine for Children With Cancer


A review conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton in the UK has found that the use of complementary and alternative medicine in pediatric cancer cases has risen significantly in recent years.

Felicity L. Bishop PhD reviewed 28 studies between 1975 and 2005 and found that the most common types of alternative therapies used included herbal remedies, diets/nutrition, and faith-healing. The most common reasons for the treatments were to provide symptom relief, support conventional therapy, or to treat/cure the disease.

An earlier study from British Columbia found that herbal teas, plant extracts and therapeutic vitamins were some of the most common therapies used. Relaxation/imagery strategies, massage, and therapeutic touch were also widely used. In 98% of the cases studied, the complementary medicines were used in conjunction with standard therapy – it did not replace it. Families who substituted alternative therapies for conventional ones most often had less desirable outcomes.


A 2003 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology found that parents most often use CAM when the family is religious. Age, time since diagnosis, sex, race, parental education, and family income were not correlated with CAM use.

New York-Presbyterian Hospital offers integrative and complementary therapies for their pediatric cancer patients, including dietary changes, mental health exercises, vitamins, herbs, both traditional and complementary pain relief therapies, therapeutic play, pet therapy, music therapy, and pastoral care.

One of the important recurring finding in studies of pediatric cancer is that the physicians are not always aware of the use of CAM. A study from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center found that less than have reported their use of complementary medicine. Doctors may not think to ask, or families may not offer the information for fear that the physician will not approve.

Complementary therapy use needs to be addressed with each family. Of utmost importance is the safety of the products used and ensuring that the alternative therapy will not interfere or counteract any conventional treatment the child is receiving.

“The use of CAM in pediatric cancer encompasses many patients," says Dr. Bishop. "Consequently, this issue must continue to be addressed openly by pediatric cancer clinicians with their patients. Additional high-quality research is needed to better understand what patients and their parents seek from CAM while conventional cancer treatments continue to develop and improve apace."


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